Editor's Note: This article was originally published by RealClearPublicAffairs on May 18, 2021 and is crossposted here with permission.
According to the American Declaration of Independence, people enter into political society for the sake of protecting their inalienable rights, which are otherwise insecure. The question then arises: what can the people do if the government betrays its trust, and violates their rights? The Declaration’s initial answer is “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.”
The people create the government, but in so doing they do not forfeit their right to vindicate their own rights, even against the very government they created. Thus James Wilson asserted that the “vital principle” of America is “that the supreme or sovereign power of the society resides in the citizens at large; and that, therefore, they always retain the right of abolishing, altering, or amending their constitution.” This right supersedes the claims of the government to the loyalty and obedience of its subjects. Federalist 28 describes the right of revolution as “that original right of self-defence, which is paramount to all positive forms of government.”
This is, however, only the beginning of the story. The Declaration of Independence devotes more space to the right of revolution than to any other single concept. Equality and liberty are asserted, more or less without comment, but the right of revolution is explained in considerable detail, providing us with answers to a variety of critical questions about this “vital principle.” By what right can the people supplant the authority of their own government? How can they justify the risks inherent in a course as drastic as revolution? What circumstances justify revolution?
Revolution and the Law of Nature
In October 1774, responding to the passage of the Intolerable Acts by the British Parliament and nearly two years before the Declaration of Independence, the First Continental Congress adopted a statement known as the Declaration and Resolves. In it, the delegates asserted that the rights of the colonists derived from three sources: “the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts.” In the Declaration of Independence, however, the English constitution and the charters and compact of the colonies fall away, leaving only “the immutable laws of nature,” or, as the 1776 document puts it, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
The shift is significant, as it illustrates the Founders’ core understanding of the foundations of the right of revolution. In 1774, the colonists were still attempting to work within the British system for redress of their grievances, and so they claimed the rights guaranteed to them as part of that system. They were seeking a political solution to a political dispute with Parliament. By 1776, however, the colonists had become revolutionaries, claiming the right to establish themselves as an independent nation. In so doing they cast aside British law and appealed exclusively to a higher law: the natural law.
The natural law, as America’s Founding Fathers understood it, is simply that portion of the law of God that could be discerned through unassisted reason, without reference to any particular revelation. Alexander Hamilton noted that the natural law was “an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensably, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any institution whatever.” The natural law is a standard of political right that transcends the constitutions and statutes of particular regimes. This means that it can be used as a basis for evaluating the actions of governments and rulers, and any such that violate the natural law are to that extent immoral and unjust.
The natural law provides a higher-law foundation for resistance to oppression, giving such resistance a moral validity that it could not possess otherwise. A right to revolution is unintelligible apart from the law of nature. Hamilton asserted that “when the first principles of civil society are violated, and the rights of the whole people are invaded, the common forms of municipal law are not to be regarded. Men may betake themselves to the law of nature.” The right of revolution is an appeal to the law of nature against the injustice of the existing government. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a legacy of this understanding, as it enables the ordinary citizen to defend his own rights against anyone who would seek to violate them, whether common criminal, foreign invader, or the citizen’s own government.
Prudence and Revolution
The existence of a natural right of revolution does not, however, mean that the exercise of this right is justified in every circumstance. The Declaration’s treatment of the right of revolution continues with the assertion that “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” Revolution can have the most catastrophic consequences. One need only look to the other two great modern revolutions to witness this. The French Revolution moved from its moderate opening phase to the repression and mass murder of the Jacobins, and ultimately traded the Bourbon monarchy for Napoleon’s empire. The Revolution unleashed more than 20 years of constant warfare on Europe, killing millions in the process. The Russian Revolution swiftly descended into Bolshevik tyranny and the unending terror of Stalin’s regime.
The explosive danger of revolution, and the catastrophic effect a revolution can have on ordinary lives, thus require a high bar for the exercise of this right. The Declarationasserts that revolution is justified only “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism”; in these circumstances, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” This is where prudence comes into view as the supreme political virtue: not every unjust act by a government justifies its violent overthrow. The Boston minister Simeon Howard warned his audience against blowing “small injuries” out of proportion: “to such injuries it is oftentimes a point of prudence, as well as duty, to submit, rather than contend.” A regime must prove itself systematically unwilling or unable to secure the rights of the people before revolution can be rightly undertaken.
Even then, revolution may not be the appropriate response. The odds of success may be so doubtful, or the likelihood of increased human misery so great, that revolution should be avoided even though the technical right exists. Two years before Howard, John Tucker told his congregation that “tho’ it may not always be prudent and best, to resist such power, and submission may be yielded, yet that the people have a right to resist, is undeniable.” The ruler may be so powerful, or his opponents so weak, that an ill-conceived revolution may be doomed to failure and merely worsen the condition of the people. In such a case, the revolutionaries would be guilty of a great crime against those whom they sought to liberate.
Under the right circumstances, however, revolution is not only a right but a duty. When the train of abuses is long, and the people are clearly being crushed into servitude, and those who would resist have a reasonable chance of success, revolution becomes an obligation. In the aftermath of the battles at Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress announced, in the language of duty, its intention to resist British oppression with armed force: “Honour, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us.” In America, in the mid-1770s, the right and the moment converged.
Unlike the French and Russian Revolutions, the American Revolution did not constitute an obvious cataclysm: it did not spiral out of control, it did not end in tyranny and terror, and it did not lead to a regime that was worse than the one it replaced. In these respects, the American Revolution was so different from its successors that some, like the conservative commentators M.E. Bradford and Russell Kirk, have argued that it wasn’t really a revolution at all but a kind of conservative secession, meant to preserve the liberties of Englishmen, which were being trampled upon by the English government. Kirk even suggests that the American Revolution is misnamed, claiming it is “a revolution not made but prevented.” A revolution, for Kirk, denotes a complete social upheaval of the kind France and Russia experienced in their revolutions but America conspicuously did not.
Nevertheless, America’s Founding Fathers understood themselves as revolutionaries, and as they understood the term, they certainly were. In Federalist 43, James Madison justifies even the peaceful supplanting of the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution in revolutionary terms, “by recurring to the absolute necessity of the case; to the great principle of self-preservation; to the transcendent law of nature and of nature’s God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed.” Any rejection of one political system and its replacement with another, on the grounds that the former does not adequately secure the inalienable natural rights of the people, is an exercise of the right of revolution.
Besides, numerous important distinctions exist between the American Revolution on the one hand, and the French and Russian Revolutions on the other, which explain their different courses. By 1776, the American colonists had a century and a half of practice in the arts of self-government, whereas the French and Russian people, at the times of their respective revolutions, had been ruled by absolutist monarchies for centuries. They had little to no experience with self-government, and it showed. Gouverneur Morris, a member of the Constitutional Convention, had been in France at the outbreak of the revolution. He noted in his diary on October 21, 1789 that in Paris, “the pressure of incumbent despotism removed, every bad passion exerts itself.” The French people, recently freed from despotism, had no idea how to govern themselves, and the result was chaos and degradation.
By the time of the Declaration of Independence, the ideas of the American Revolution had been discussed, worked out, and diffused among the people for at least a decade. The Declaration of Independence was a new beginning for the colonists, to be sure, but it was also the culmination of years of political and social action, debate, and civic education in the first principles of justice. By contrast, the French and Russian Revolutions were sudden explosions that took nearly everyone by surprise. More importantly, the ideals of those revolutions had not penetrated their societies, as they had in America; they remained confined to a narrow intellectual or revolutionary class until after those revolutions had begun.
The principles animating the American Revolution were also qualitatively different from those of its more radical successors. The French and Russian revolutionaries claimed the right and the duty to use force and violence to spread their principles to other nations, something the principles of the American Revolution positively forbade. The American Revolution was not utopian; it contained no concept analogous to that of the “New Soviet Man,” the man who has remade himself by internalizing the works of Marx and his successors. The Americans accepted that human nature was both imperfect and fixed, and that government can only hope to account for the bad in man, not destroy it. It is no coincidence that the French and Russian Revolutions yielded mass murder, while the American Revolution did not.
Finally, the French and Russian Revolutions emphatically maintained that the old was synonymous with the bad, and sought to eradicate, not just the old government, but everything about the previous order. Both were unflinchingly hostile to Christianity, while the Americans relied upon it, with John Adams noting that “our constitution was made for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The French created a new calendar, while the Russians abolished the personal ranks of military officers. Our revolution never embraced this path. As Jefferson observed, “Every species of government has its specific principles. Ours perhaps are more peculiar than those of any other in the universe. It is a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution, with others derived from natural right and natural reason.” America’s Founding Fathers evaluated the English system according to the laws of nature. Those elements judged to be conducive to securing the rights of the people, such as trial by jury and the writ of habeas corpus, were retained. Others, like established religions and titles of nobility, which were not so conducive, were discarded.
The American Revolution was a true landmark in human history. It demonstrated to the world that a people can not only overthrow an existing regime but also successfully establish a free, peaceful, and functional government of their own. The American Revolution is no less a revolution for not having devolved into terror, war, and catastrophic social upheaval. Americans grounded their revolution in the eternal principles of natural law and natural right, and in so doing provided a roadmap for all who would reclaim the liberty that God has granted them, but which their government is systemically unable or unwilling to secure.
Kevin Portteus is the Lawrence Fertig professor of politics and director of American studies at Hillsdale College.